31 May 2007

Welcome To London

No sooner did I write here that I wouldn't dream of taking a taxi when there was a bus or train available than - oh bitter and expensive irony - I found myself in the back of a taxi watching the meter climb toward the stratosphere as we crawled through the back streets (the expressway was jammed solid, natch) on the way to Kennedy Airport.

It was my own fault, really; I thought I could get some errands done in Greenpoint and still get back home in time to catch the train to the airport, but I got hung up at the bank for an extra half hour. Compounding the irony, as it turned out I still could have made it to the airport on time even if I'd taken the train; as it was, I ended up with almost two hours to kill. Still, the ride out was both enjoyable and instructive, if a bit dizzying.

It started when I complimented the driver on his car (it wasn't an actual taxi, but a guy from the local car service driving his own carefully manicured vehicle), which was obviously the sort of thing he liked to hear, because he immediately went into a half hour disquisition on everything and anything to do with cars, including the price and styles thereof in his native Ecuador as compared with Brooklyn, the new minivan he was going to buy when he finished paying off his wife following their messy divorce, and comparative gas mileages of the leading 50 brands of automobile.

Only thing was that he did nearly all of it in Spanish. We started out in English, albeit on a very rudimentary level, but I only had to utter a couple of Spanish words in an attempt to clarify a point - nothing more elaborate than ¿Que tipos? or ¿De donde vienes? - and any effort at English on his part went right out the window. He seemed to assume that I was fluent or very nearly so in Spanish, and while I've never been anywhere near that level, the amazing thing was that I actually did understand between half and three quarters of what he said. As I said, very instructive. If I weren't too much of a tightwad to consider using his car service unless it's another emergency, I could be speaking Spanish like a pro in no time.

Keeping with the theme, my seatmate on the flight over was a big (in that he took up his entire seat and part of mine) old (in that he was only 14 years younger than me) Puerto Rican highway worker from Maspeth, but he'd been in New York for so long that he barely spoke Spanish at all. Apparently much of his social life involves regularly flying over to hang out with his Irish buddies who are spread out all over England, Scotland and, oh yes, Ireland. Nice guy, good sense of humor, and a great story teller. Only downside was that I didn't get any sleep.

We landed early, customs was smooth and no ordeal at all, and then came the real treat: I went to get an Underground ticket for the ride into London and found that out of three available machines, one was out of order, one took coins only and no credit cards (sorry, but I just don't happen to have £23.20 in coins), and the third had a fairly long queue in front of it.

Typical, I said, reverting almost immediately to my long-practiced role of whingeing Pom, but the queue moved relatively quickly until there was just one girl in front of me who - once more, typical - was having trouble getting the machine to accept her money. Instead of huffing and puffing, however, for once I practiced patience and forbearance, and then came my reward.

The out of order machine next to us made a retching sound, almost as if it were vomiting, and what to my wondering eyes should appear but a £5 note sticking halfway out of the "insert cash here" slot. I thought about grabbing it, but realized it would look unseemly to the girl still struggling with the machine in front of us. Then came a bit more retching, and the £5 note came out a bit further. There was no one else around now except the girl in front of me (and of course the omnipresent surveillance cameras), but I was still too shy to grab the money, and instead debated whether I should turn it in to the London Underground employee who'd been hanging around a few minutes earlier.

He'd just put it in his own pocket, I reasoned, er, rationalized, but still, what did it matter? One thing that was certain was that it wasn't my money. Just then the machine gave an even bigger shudder and vomited the £5 note out onto the floor, followed closely by a £20 note. The two bills landed virtually at the feet of the girl in front of me, who looked at them with the quizzical eyes of a foreigner who has seen just about enough strange things in this new country for one day, thank you very much, and then looked away as if to say, "It's nothing to do with me."

That did it. I scooped up the £25 and generously offered to trade her my new £5 note for the one she was having no luck getting her machine to accept. That didn't work either, so I traded her £5 in coins, which did, and as she walked away, I finally felt free to put the £25 in my pocket.

Not without a few qualms of conscience, it's true, but I needed only to remind myself of the years of pain and indignity inflicted on me by London Underground and the many thousands of pounds they've charged me for the privilege to feel assured that while I may not have been acting with perfectly scrupulous honesty, I could make a pretty good case for the 25 quid being a dividend earned many times over.

And in fact it was just slightly more than enough to pay for my first week's Travelcard, which of course has gone up in price again since I left London. A month's travel in inner London now works out to about $180 per month, compared with $76 in New York (and that $76 gets you all of New York; a similar deal in London would run closer to $300). Never mind, though, no need for griping, as I'm only here for 12 days and I don't want to mar it by worrying about money.

It's my first time in London as a tourist since the 1970s, and more specifically the first time I haven't had a home to go to. For some reason, that seems to have greatly changed my perspective on the place. I'm staying quite near to my old stomping grounds, and find it rather staggering just how beautiful it is. How did I not notice this as I walked through these same streets through the years? And the air is so brisk and (I know this is an illusion) clean and invigorating compared with the muggy summer soup that was beginning to settle in over New York when I left.

Did I make a mistake by leaving London when I did? No, I don't think so. I still love this place, and it's great to be here for a few days. But it'll be even greater to come back home to New York.

26 May 2007

Biking To Gilman

So there I was in Berkeley for the first time in a few years without access to a car. True, I never drove all that much when I did have a car, but there were certain destinations - and especially certain times of night - when using public transportation was a miserable and/or impossible prospect.

Remind me, while I'm on the subject, never ever to complain about the New York City subway again. After a couple days of depending on the Bay Area Toonerville Trolley, misleadingly known as Bay Area "Rapid Transit," it was easy to see why the streets of Berkeley and Frisco are largely deserted at night. It's just not worth the hassle of going out.

It used to be that while you had to wait a long time between trains (but hey, what's your hurry, there's nowhere to go anyway, so you might as well just kick back, smoke another joint and munch on some sautéed bean sprouts), but at least BART kept to a schedule, which, if you weren't too stoned to figure it out, meant you could generally show up at the station just in time for a train. No longer, though; in its ongoing crusade to punish the people of the Bay Area for being such gullible dupes, BART has now taken to canceling trains without notice and leaving people hanging out on the station platform for up to half an hour, by which time many of them could have walked where they were going. Except of course that they've already paid to get in the station and there are no refunds.

It used to be that you could take a train straight to San Francisco Airport, just like many real cities, but that made too much sense and was too easy. Now you've got to take three trains, including an 11 minute wait on the platform while other trains that are going almost but not quite to SFO pass you by. Brilliant transit planning, BART guys. Let me guess: you never actually ride the thing, do you?

At least I could get to my mom's and brother's houses in El Cerrito pretty easily. Six minutes on the train and a 10 minute walk at either end made it almost as quick as driving. But even that got a little tedious, so I decided to follow my other brother's example and ride a bike there. The last time - years ago, I must admit - I tried riding to El Cerrito I followed the same route I'd normally use if driving a car, and it was harsh: up and down some very stroppy hills. I was completely exhausted by the time I got there and ended up bringing my bike back on the BART.

But this time I thought things out a little more carefully and on doing so realized that the bicycle freeway - aka the bike path or the Ohlone Greenway - that passed near my mom's house was the same one that passed very near my Berkeley HQ, and that it was pretty much a level run all the way there.

I'd ridden the path many times before, but only as far as Gilman Street, which is what, for old times' sake, I'd done on Friday night. I was hoping to run into Jesse Luscious there, being that he'd posted on the PPMB that he might be stopping in to see Social Unrest. He didn't show up, as it turned out, but quite a few other old-timers did, including, of course, SU guitarist James Brogan, who I also knew from his days with Samiam.

Then there was Gary Gutfeld, formerly of the Hi-Fives, who seemed a semi-unlikely candidate to be playing drums for such a proto/über-punk outfit like Social Unrest, but who acquitted himself masterfully (I shouldn't be surprised, really; Luis Illades, best known for his efforts on behalf of the poppier Pansy Division and Plus ones, turned out to be a totally solid punk rock drummer when he linked up with SF's re-united Avengers).

I was thinking it must have been nearly 20 years since I'd last seen Social Unrest, and if it wasn't quite that long, it's got to have been at least 15 or 18. And while I was remarking to someone on how remarkable it was that a band could still have so much youthful punk rock energy after 25 years, it suddenly occurred to me that they've been around even longer than that, more like 27-28 years. Wow.

I was especially impressed by singer Creetin K-os, who looked and carried himself like the kind of half-glam/half-gritty rock stars who used to front punk bands back in the glory days, and of whom Operation Ivy singer Jesse Michaels once said, "Basically, I ripped off his vocal style to a major degree. If people hear Creetin K-os sing, they'll be like, 'Oh, I see where he got all his shit.'" The guy's obviously a few years older than he was when he first fronted SU, but without getting right up front and examining him closely, you'd be hard pressed to tell.

It being "punk" night at Gilman, the troglodyte element was a little more evident among the audience. Actually, there was no more than a handful of serious old-fashioned moshers trying their best to make a circle pit while simultaneously trying to slam into and knock down as many innocent bystanders as possible. One particular goombah, who couldn't have been more than 5'4" but was built like the proverbial brick shithouse, especially delighted in blindsiding and sending sprawling anyone unwise enough to let his or her eyes stray toward the stage instead of the pit.

Forgetting momentarily how old and comparatively scrawny I am, I briefly mulled over stepping into the pit and sorting him out, but fortunately sanity returned before I took any such action. Back in 1987 or 88, when I was skinnier and crazier, but also 20 years younger, I single-handedly muscled a large obstreperous skinhead out of the pit and out the front door before he or anyone else realized what was happening. I've never understood how I got away with that, unless it was simply a matter of the guy simply being in shock that he was being manhandled by a guy half his size.

Gilman being Gilman, nobody did anything about the homicidal slam dancers except grumble to themselves or surreptitiously shove back when no one was looking. It kind of reminded me of the club's attitude toward smoking: it's one of the last public places in California where people are allowed to smoke indoors, even though smokers are now a tiny minority.

It wasn't always that way: a few years back, the joint reeked with great clouds of cigarette smoke as mobs of teenagers declared their freedom from mom and dad by puffing up a storm. But for some reason, that's no longer the case, which makes it all the more obvious how one single smoker can stink up the air for a couple dozen other people nearby.

But no one would dream of telling Mr. Smoker to take it outdoors, because that wouldn't be "punk." Ah well. I had to move a few times because some clueless dink parked himself right next to me with a slow-burning and especially stinky cigarette which he then used to strike elaborate poses meant apparently to illustrate just how cool he was but, um, failed miserably. Hey, that's Gilman. You take the tacky with the ultra-cool.

Anyway, the bike ride there and back was so pleasant and easy that the next day I high-tailed it over to El Cerrito over an as yet unexplored (except on foot) stretch of the Greenway. I thought it was especially cute how at Eureka Street in EC they even had an on ramp just like car freeways, complete with a mini-sized Yield sign. Again, the ride took me about the same amount of time it would have taken if I'd traveled by BART or automobile.

Had a nice time walking around EC with my mom, but when it came time to zip back to Berkeley and then on to BART for the trip to the airport, a great foul and chilly wind had sprung up, one of those winds Frisco and the near East Bay often get this time of year that makes it feel almost worse than midwinter. It was also blowing straight in my face all the way to Berkeley, and tearing right through my flimsy little jacket that by all normal logic should have been more than adequate for the last days of May. It didn't help, either, that I'd just checked the weather back home in New York and learned that it was a sunny 88 degrees there.

I wish I could have figured out a way to pack my bike up and ship it out to NYC for something less than the $75 it originally cost me back in 1993. An amazing bike it is, too: I've done virtually nothing to maintain it, it's sat outside through over a dozen Bay Area winters, and yet with little more than some air in the tires and a smattering of oil for the gears, it ran like a charm. I can't imagine what sort of additional comfort people who spend a couple grand on a bike are getting for their money.

Unfortunately, I probably won't be able to figure out any economical way of getting the bike here to NY short of hiring a big truck to drive it and all my remaining California possessions across the country, so in the interim I guess I'll have to look for its $75 equivalent on this side of the country, because after braving the wintry gales of a Frisco "spring," the idea of cruising the hot summer streets of Brooklyn and Manhattan suddenly seems a lot more appealing.

Oh yeah, while I've always enjoyed arriving in New York after a lengthy airplane ride, it's about a hundred times better when you know you're coming home and not just for a visit. It being sunny, warm and the start of what looks to be a long and lovely summer is that much more icing on the cake.

Back Of The Plane

About 15 years ago, I started doing a lot of flying. Well, let's be precise: I started riding in a lot of airplanes. I never actually flew one myself. At first it was largely business related, with my having to jet around the country to meet up with bands and/or scout out bands or just see bands that I liked to see because it was all a tax write-off anyway. And then when I became exhausted from meeting, seeing and hobnobbing with all those bands, I'd have to fly off somewhere else for a vacation. Where I'd usually end up seeing more bands and/or they would see me and chase me around trying to give me demo tapes. Eventually the mound of demo tapes in the corner of my room reached Himalayan proportions (it just seemed wrong to throw them out, even though I could barely bring myself to listen to them, either), one of several reasons why I hailed and continue to hail the advent of the mp3.

But I digress more radically than usual: I'm actually here today to talk about air travel, and how my decade and a half of profligate travel led to the accumulation of hundreds of thousands of frequent flyer miles (yes, I know I am a villainous scoundrel for contributing to global warming, but a) most places I have lived could do with a little warming; b) I at least partially made up for my excess flying by doing little or no driving; and c) on the day that my energy consumption and greenhouse gas output reaches 10% - hell, even 5% - of what gasbag Al Gore is pumping out, I'll take your criticisms under serious consideration).

And nearly all of those miles were on United Airlines, partly because it flew to all the places I most often visited, and partly because once you start accumulating miles on one carrier, you tend to stick with it whenever possible because of the perks that start to come your way. Not just the free flights, but the upgrades to a better class of service, and the special treatment you get even when you're flying on a bargain basement fare.

For example, it's been years since I've had to stand in line with the normal folks to check in or board the plane. At many airports, they even have a separate security gate for "elite" flyers, meaning you can stroll right past the hoi polloi who might have already been standing there for hours waiting their turn.

Yes, those were the days, but no more, I'm afraid. For one thing, now that I'm finally settled in New York, I feel much less inclined to travel, and secondly, United Airlines, once my favorite airline, have steadily made themselves less pleasant and less affordable, to the point where I've finally had to give up on them altogether.

It's bad enough that their fares have steadily gone up, and that they're now usually among the most expensive rather than the most affordable, or that anytime you try to book a flight with with them, they try to send you on some route that takes you from New York to Chicago by way of Phoenix, Arizona and only leaves at 6'oclock in the morning. You want a normal flight that goes directly there at a normal time of the day? Fine, you can do that, but the fare just quadrupled.

But the last straw was when, possibly in an attempt to claw its way out of bankruptcy, United sold its landing rights for the lucrative New York to London route to another airline. You want to fly United between Kennedy and Heathrow now, you'll have to go by way of Washington or Chicago (hint: it's in the opposite direction), adding 3-5 hours to your travel time and taking nothing off your fare. In fact, other airlines like American or Virgin will usually take you directly to London for a few hundred bucks less than United is charging for its round-the-houses route.

So after several years of trying, United has finally destroyed my hard-won customer loyalty, and on my most recent trip to San Francisco, I had the unnerving experience of flying a different airline, leaving from a different terminal that I had never seen before, and if that weren't unsettling enough (it almost felt as though I were cheating on my wife, or that the president of United Airlines would suddenly pop up on the Airtrain and give me a pained look and a "How could you" as we rolled past his terminal).

And, of course, I had to wait until the last group to be boarded, and be squished into the cheap seats at the back of the plane where they don't even give you a full can of soda and a packet of M&Ms or some appalling-looking trail mix (the woman two seats over vomited repeatedly all the way across country after consuming some) retails for $3.

Yes, I suppose I could have paid more to ride up front, but if you think I would, you'd be forgetting that I'm the kind of guy who'd wait hours for a bus or a train - or walk 10 miles - rather than plunk down a few extra dollars for a taxi. At least my many years of flying experience have given me a little insight in how to obtain the best (of a bad lot) seats available, and to slither on board ahead of the people hoping to stash their goats and chickens in the overhead bins. And possibly if I stick with my new carrier (all right, it's American Airlines, but it hurts to say it, almost as though by pronouncing the name of the third party, I'm compounding my unfaithfulness) long enough, I'll eventually accumulate enough miles that they'll move me back up to whatever passes for "elite" status in their program.

But in a way, I kind of hope not, because in order for that to happen, I'd have to spend a lot more time on airplanes and in cities other than New York, and right now, I'm none too enthusiastic about being anyplace but here. That being said, I'm off to London tomorrow for 12 days, and yes, I'll be riding at the back of the plane. So this is how the other half, erm, I mean, the other 90% lives. Shocking, I tell you, simply shocking.

24 May 2007

Dawkins And Chomsky: A Reader Responds

This letter just arrived in response to my column in Punk Planet #79 (would like to post a link to the column here, but temporarily lack the technological capability). Since it came too late for me to answer it in the next issues of PP, I thought I'd do so here. First, here's the letter, from one Dan McKee:

Hey Larry…I was just reading your latest column in Punk Planet, and I’ve got to pick you up on something. When you question Chomsky’s knowledge on geo-political affairs because he made a name for himself academically in the field of linguistics, you are really defending quite a strange viewpoint: that one can’t have expert knowledge about two subject areas.

Now obviously Chomsky made a name for himself in linguistics, but if you actually read his political work rather than simply knee-jerk about it, then you can see that he has perfectly valid credentials to discuss the issues he raises: he question’s the way the mass media deals with the events they report, compares what they say with a well-sourced and meticulously researched account of what actually happened, and shows valid and plausible conclusions from this research about the media’s ideology; conclusions consistently supported by the ongoing empirical record. After doing such research for about forty years now, he not only has accrued a significant amount of irrefutable empirical evidence with which to support his overall thesis, but he has, more importantly, now spent more than double the time researching and studying geopolitical affairs than he had spent studying and researching linguistics by the time he revolutionized that field in his late twenties and made that original name for himself.

My point is, perhaps the argument “what is this linguist doing poking his nose into international affairs” might have held some vague credence in the mid-sixties, when Chomsky first started to write on US foreign policy after making a name for himself in the field of linguistics…but how can one possibly look at the massive amount of political research and study Chomsky has produced in the past forty years and seriously say that at this point he is not qualified to comment on such matters? Even allowing for your seemingly held view that a person cannot have knowledgeable expertise in two fields at once, at this point even Chomsky himself sees his linguistic work as more of an obstacle to his political research than as his main scholarly pursuit. To ignore his genuine contributions to political analysis based on spurious claims that he doesn’t know what he is talking about is totally absurd.

Which brings me to Dawkins. To read Dawkins’ God Delusion as akin to the fundamentalist rantings of extremist Christians, Muslims, etc is to entirely miss the point: whereas the religious base their claims in nothing but unsubstantiated assumptions of tradition and faith, Dawkins’ simply asks readers to give religious claims the same level of intellectual analysis that they do to all other claims made in their life, and agree with the evidence such analysis will yield: that there is no compelling rational basis for any religious belief, and there are very compelling rational arguments against them.

The reason that this is precisely related to his specialised field of evolutionary biology is because, Dawkins feels, evolutionary biology provides a much better, empirically verifiable and factually-supported explanation for most phenomena than the traditionally accepted religious views which assert mystical genesis to such things. Further still, his “fundamentalism” is not asking people to forsake their cultures and traditions by force and believe exactly what he believes or die/go to hell, etc; but is simply asking people to do what they do anyway in all other walks of their life, and use their rational capacities to give their religious convictions the same level of intellectual analysis they would give to any other thought. His urgency and despair that might give rise to seemingly frustrated and shrill pleas for an end to religious belief, is because of how the high levels of religious thinking that still prevails in the world today has lead to many, many negative things in society, which he feels (and coherently argues), once the unearned deference given to religious claims is discarded and genuine rationality applied, are dangerous trends which are completely unnecessary and unjustified, and therefore could be abolished today if people simply starting thinking clearly about such matters.

Anyway, these are just my thoughts. It’s fine for you to say that you think Chomsky is wrong, or that Dawkins is wrong…but don’t try and hiding behind a spurious argument to discredit these thinkers’ right to engage in the debates they choose to enter. If you take issue with their arguments, then engage with what they are saying, rather than whether you feel they are entitled to say it.

Of course, by your own logic, I should only expect such a short-sighted and ignorant analysis of Chomsky and Dawkins from you, and indeed, maybe I should just reject your ability to say anything meaningful about philosophy, theology, or politics? I mean, you’re not a specialist in any of those areas! Your field is punk rock isn’t it, and, by your own arguments, you surely therefore have no right to talk seriously about issues in other people’s fields of expertise?

Dear Dan:

Thanks for your well and passionately argued response to my column. My argument was not that people should be confined to commenting on matters within their own field of expertise (if that were the case, the vast majority of people would have to remain silent on the vast majority of issues), but that expertise in one field shouldn't be assumed to confer expertise in another.

I don't know enough about linguistics or evolutionary biology to evaluate Chomsky's or Dawkins' competence in their respective disciplines, but when it comes to geopolitics and theology, they are strictly amateurs (in both the pejorative and meliorative senses of the word), just like me. As such, they and I can only be judged on the quality of our reasoning, conclusions and research.

You refer to the quality of Chomsky's "research," but while I haven't read anywhere near all of his books, I've read enough to observe that what he presents as research comes across in my view as a meticulous compilation of every fact, vignette, anecdote or insinuation likely to show America in particular and liberal capitalist democracy in general in a bad light. And that this "information" is consistently presented out of context and with what looks like a deliberate omission of any mitigating factors.

Allow me to make an analogy: suppose that I, Larry Livermore, decided to "prove" that you, Dan McKee, were a reprehensible scoundrel with absolutely no redeeming qualities. If I were to go over your life with a sufficiently fine-toothed comb, I'm sure I could compile a substantial body of "research" proving just that, provided that I focused only on the times you goofed off on the job, failed to do your homework, disobeyed your parents, broke laws governing the consumptions of alcohol, cigarettes or drugs, etc. etc., and completely left out any mention of awards or honors you've won, the prestigious job you might hold, the wonderful friend or son or brother you've been, or the old ladies you may have helped across the street.

This is essentially what Chomsky does with his "analysis" of America and its place in the world (Zinn does much the same thing in a more populist vein). If you were to use Chomsky as your only source of information about American history, you could be forgiven for thinking that this country has done little for the past 230 years apart from invading countries, manipulating foreign dictators and exterminating hapless indigenous peoples, all for no apparent motive apart from greed and sheer untrammeled malevolence.

Examples: discussing only American involvement in foreign conflicts or its enormous military budget while failing to note these often took place in the context of a grave (or what was perceived at the time to be grave) external threat. If Chomsky were your only source, for example, would you even know that an expansion-minded and totalitarian Soviet Union ever even existed?

And Chomsky's been writing long enough for some of his conclusions to be measured against the standard of real-life outcomes, and here he falls down badly. In American Power And The New Mandarins he blithely dismissed American concerns over regimes like North Korea while assailing the likes of South Korea and Taiwan as being repressive American puppets; today it's generally accepted that North Korea is one of the most brutal dictatorships on earth and both South Korea and Taiwan are prosperous, thriving democracies. Chomsky shrugged off the Cambodian Khmer Rouge as an essentially benign movement, and when that "benign" movement had finished murdering a quarter of that country's people, he shifted his stance to claim that the genocide was the fault of (who else?) the Americans for having destabilized the region.

What's Chomsky's motivation? I must confess that I don't know, but at times his anti-Americanism appears to border on the pathological. And I say that in light of my experience of having once held many similar views about America and Western society: I was pretty much a sociopath myself at the time.

As for Dawkins, well, his research into biology can, like all scientific research, be tested and queried, but his assumption (and that of his fans and followers) that one can use the same criteria for a study of things theological is fallacious from the get-go. When it comes to pondering the nature of our ultimate origins or destinations, we are all rank amateurs stumbling about in the dark. Anyone who claims to "know" or to have "proved" that there is or isn't a God has in so doing shown himself to be a charlatan.

Simply by virtue of the generally accepted scientific understanding that it is impossible to prove a negative, Dawkins is on shaky ground. The fact that there is a great deal still unexplained (and, some might argue, inexplicable) about how the universe and its contents came into being would seem to lend more credence to the existence of some higher power or intelligence than to the absence thereof, but this is a point about which we can agree or disagree endlessly. Until God chooses to make him/herself undeniably manifest and/or science has succeeded in mapping out every last detail and corner of existence and explaining beyond refutation its source and purpose, none of us can say anything definitive on the subject.

My problem with Dawkins is not his wish to proclaim himself as an atheist; it is the almost childish vindictiveness with which he attempts to ridicule people of faith while at the same time clinging to his own "scientific" faith. I stand second to none in my admiration for science and what it has given us, but when it comes to ontological and existential questions, science has provided no more credible answers than religion or philosophy has. The Big Bang? Please. It's no more plausible and a lot less poetic than Genesis, and even if it could be proven to be true, would still have done nothing to explain the origin or nature of the materials that preceded it.

In other words, it's not Dawkins' erudition I question; it's the dubious and at times almost childish conclusions he reaches with it.

Where Else But Berkeley...

...is a sentence like
The Bush administration isn’t just some inbred motley crew of arrogant extortionist bullies who like to push people around whenever they feel like it; they are the latest in a series of plutocratic American gangsters bent on expanding the Atlanticist Empire with all the economic and military muscle available to them.
almost certain to come up sooner or later during any discussion about the behavior of bicyclists on city streets?

23 May 2007

Amnesty International? More Like A**holes International

Sorry for the intemperate language, but while I've always harbored a soft spot for Amnesty International despite its being wrong at lest half the time, they've finally veered off into total demagogic crazyland. I'm sure they still get it right occasionally, if only on the stopped clock scale of things, but their latest pronouncement equating Australia's democratically elected Prime Minister John Howard with mass murdering despots like Zimbabwe's Robert Mugabe and Sudan's Omar Al-Bashir not only stands truth and logic on its head, it's an insult to the intelligence and decency of the millions of people who in good faith have supported Amnesty International with their contributions.

Honorable people can disagree about the merits of John Howard. The majority of my Australian friends don't like him and will vote against him in this year's elections. But note that word: "elections." There is not a shred of evidence to suggest that if the voting goes against him (as polls indicate is likely) Howard will do anything other than gracefully step aside and hand government over to his Labor opposition. There's never been a hint of the rigged ballots and stormtrooper tactics of intimidation employed by the African strongmen, let alone the systematic racial oppression and (at least in Bashir's case, though some would argue in Mugabe's as well) genocide.

So how did Howard get on this list? It might help you to understand where AI is coming from if I point out that George Bush was also lumped in with the tyrants while numerous sub-Saharan and Middle Eastern dictators, not to mention the leaders of Cuba or China, neither of which has held a free election many decades, were conspicuously absent from this denunciation.

Another case, then, of teenage hormonal communism and/or anarchism in which Dad is denounced as a fascist for not providing Junior with his own Gold Card? More or less, though given its long, and at one time more respectable history, one might expect a higher standard of discourse from an organization with nearly five decades and an annual income in excess of $60 million behind it.

Amnesty's case against Howard, such as it is, revolves around the popular misconception that he is a xenophobe who has transformed a once-liberal Australia into a hotbed of anti-immigrant sentiment. The facts speak otherwise: during his 11 years in office, Australia has consistently accepted new immigrants at a rate 60 to 100% higher than under the supposedly more "open" and "tolerant" administration of his Labor predecessor. There has been a similar increase in the number of Muslim immigrants, despite the constant chorus from the hard left accusing Howard of being an Islam-basher.

Just what did Howard do, then, to incur the wrath of the Amnesty demagogues and truth-manglers? Most likely it was his largely successful effort to transform Australia's immigration system from a shambolic free-for-all into the sort of merit-based system that is currently being proposed here in the USA. Howard contended that the boatloads of "asylum seekers" regularly arriving on Australian shores were in fact largely economic migrants, and as such shouldn't be given preference over those attempting to emigrate to Australia by legal means.

His remedy, announcing that future boatloads of refugees could no longer expect to gain automatic Australian residence or even access to the Australian mainland, aroused strong feelings on both sides of the issue, but the results seem to have supported Howard's argument: since his new policy was instituted, the flow of (take your pick) illegal immigrants/asylum seekers has virtually dried up. Howard's supporters point out with some justification that if the refugees were genuine asylum seekers and as desperate as they claim to be, the inability to reach Australian soil would not put them off: they would be happy to find sanctuary anywhere away from their home country. But such has not been the case.

Howard gets similarly skewered for his alleged mistreatment of indigenous people, but what he has in fact done is try to reverse several decades of failed policies that, by providing them with welfare benefits and the "freedom" to destroy themselves and their communities with rampant alcoholism, petrol-sniffing and sexual abuse, all in the name of "cultural autonomy," were essentially killing the aborigines with benevolent neglect. Howard has been branded as a racist and even (by some in the more hysterical left) a "genocidal maniac" for suggesting such obvious programs as requiring native peoples to send their children to school, bring them for regular medical checkups, and practice basic hygiene in return for their continued participation in welfare programs.

And however one feels about Bush, and whatever other failings you can charge him with, it's ludicrous to make accusations of racism or xenophobia against the president of the country which is and historically has been the world's single greatest destination for immigrants and refugees of all sorts. Or, for that matter, the country which arguably is the most integrated and provides greater opportunities for people of all colors, religions and ethnicities than anywhere else on earth.

I can't say that I'll never contribute to Amnesty International again because, to be honest, I never have done so in the past. But I have attended benefits and seriously considered making donations on occasion, neither of which I can see myself doing in the future now that the lunatics and hatemongers have clearly taken control of the asylum.

22 May 2007

Actually It Just Feels That Way

Living In Berkeley Means Longer Life, Study Finds

Monday Night At The Cake Shop

I'd heard about the Cake Shop before, quite a few times in fact, but I'd never gotten a firm grasp on exactly what it was or did. And now, having finally been there, I must admit that I still don't know; being so late for last night's show, I rushed through so quickly on my way to the downstairs venue that I failed to take proper notice of what was going on around me.

On my way out, I did observe that they had some actual cakes - cupcakes, anyway - for sale. Hallie Unlovable even bought one and transported it back to Brooklyn, and I must admit to looking a bit longingly at it as it lurked atop her suitcase of unsold merch. But what else? Apparently the Cake Shop is also a bar, and if its website is to be believed, a record shop. The upstairs is nicely lit, comfortable, and remarkably quiet considering the punk rock mayhem taking place one floor beneath. People seemed to be just sort of lounging about as it it were an extension of their living room, which is a nice quality in a city where most people can't afford living rooms of their own.

Downstairs nearly the entire PPMB crew was there to witness appearances by Defect Defect, For Science, hometown heroes the Unlovables, and touring bands the Copyrights and the Methadones. I missed the first two (people were raving about Defect Defect, but to be fair, they're always raving about something), and got there just in time for the Unlovables (or the Steinlovables, or Unloveaways, as Carla Monoxide put it, since they consisted of two Unlovables and two Steinways, Chris Grivet on drums and Grath McGrath on guitar). It was a good combination in any event, as the band has seldom sounded tighter.

The Copyrights, one of America's most exciting (relatively) new pop-punk bands, didn't disappoint, though if one wished to quibble, they could have done a few more songs from their classic Mutiny Pop album rather than concentrate on mostly new material. And the Methadones, fronted by the legendary Dan Vapid, were hampered by a sound mix that seemed to emphasize the bass guitar (which was outstandingly played, true, but still...) over the guitars and vocals. Great band nonetheless. Another odd thing: I'm so used to hearing the Methadones on my iPod "at the gym" mix that through most of their set I felt as though I should be lifting weights or rocking the cross trainers.

Apparently whoever's in charge of the Cake Shop had been reluctant to host this show or any like it because he's "not into pop-punk," but hopefully last night's crowd will change his mind, because it really was a sweet bunch of people, not an iota of trouble, and barely a smidgen of drunkenness even. Of course for an establishment that makes its money selling booze, an absence of drunkenness might not be the most favorable augury, but this bunch were putting the beer away at the sort of measured pace you might expect on a Monday night. There was no sign of the falling about antics that characterized the Friday night show, which made things all the more enjoyable for me. Plus you could talk to each other in between sets, unlike the Lit Lounge, where they seem to think everybody wants to have their brains rattled out of their sockets nonstop for five hours.

Near-universal verdict: the Cake Shop is a bit of all right, and would be an excellent venue to host future shows. All credit and honor to Frank Unlovable for setting this deal up and making it run smooth as silk all through the evening. Five bands, and we were still out the door in plenty of time for the working people to get home and get a decent night's sleep. Even the L train cooperated; we "only" had to wait about 15 minutes for a train, and though it was packed pretty tight, we still had a reasonably pleasant ride back to Brooklyn, we being myself, Hallie, her friend Samantha, and the aforementioned cupcake.

Can't Pass That Test? It Must Be Racist!

I don't know which annoys me more: this lawsuit alleging that New York City is systematically excluding blacks and Hispanics from becoming firefighters by requiring them to pass a written exam that, apparently, most of them can't pass, or the fact that the media and the federal government are taking such a spurious case so seriously.

Essentially, minority (actually, that's a misnomer; in New York City, whites are in the minority) candidates have been doing considerably worse on the exam than whites. Ergo, in the minds of race-obsessed attorneys and activists, the test must be racist. Well, how about this: when as a teenager I was rejected by the college I most wanted to attend, I didn't call a lawyer and demand that he file suit on grounds that the University of Michigan systematically discriminated against white working class youth from downriver Detroit. I accepted (albeit reluctantly) that I had spent too much of my high school years goofing off instead of studying.

Similarly, if large numbers of black candidates are failing to do well on the firefighters exam, why does this prove something is wrong with the system? Wouldn't it be more helpful to look at what it is about the black community that continues to produce inordinate numbers of young people who can't or won't acquire the basic level of education necessary to function well and prosper in society?

The argument being made is that the skills being tested by the exam are "not relevant" to what a good firefighter needs to know. This may or may not be true. But all things being equal, when the fire department shows up at your house, would you prefer that the firemen (or women) be the smartest men and women or available? Or would you prefer to have a number of them be dumber as long as they make a good poster for racial and cultural diversity?

Yes, I agree it's unfortunate that in a city more than half black and brown, the fire department is overwhelmingly white. But there's a solution that doesn't involve lawsuits and dumbing down of standards: it entails parents in minority communities making sure their kids get to school and do their homework, which is exactly how every other minority community in the past has advanced itself. While we're at it, I note that whites are greatly overrepresented in the fields of medicine and aviation. Would you like the doctor who operates on you or the pilot who flies you on your next journey to be awarded his or her accreditation based on skin color rather than on being the best qualified for the job?

Perhaps we should turn things around and look at fields in which black people are overrepresented. Take professional basketball, for instance: shouldn't more white players be encouraged to join the NBA even if they can't jump quite as high or run quite as fast as some black players? After all, it's only a game, right? Which is more important, winning, or reflecting America's multi-racial character on the basketball court? (P.S. South Africa and Zimbabwe have already instituted this kind of affirmative action to put an end to white dominance of their cricket teams.)

What about rap music? Is it fair that one of the most popular and lucrative music genres should be overwhelmingly dominated by members of one race? Nitpickers and quibblers might argue that most whites don't have the same feel for rhythm and rhyme that blacks do, but that's hardly an excuse for setting standards that systematically exclude a large portion of the population from the fun and profits of being a successful rap artist. Why, think what it does to a young white boy's self-esteem when he sees his African-American classmates welcomed into the hip hop fraternity while he remains cruelly excluded?

Hey, all I'm asking for here is a little consistency. If we're going to assign positions and honors based on skin color, then let's just say so and apply it across the board. But if we're supposed to be a true meritocracy, where everyone has an equal opportunity for success but no one has a guarantee of it, can we please put an end to this obsession with race that ends up being just another variant - and perhaps a more pernicious form at that - of racism?

21 May 2007

Tim Armstrong: A Poet's Life

Sometimes it's hard keeping up with my old friend Tim Armstrong. From time to time he'll turn up in the same town where I happen to be. We'll hang out, he'll tell me all these things he's thinking of doing or planning on doing, and then suddenly he's gone again, slipping away into the Tim-zone, which for all I know exists in a parallel universe. One day I might get ten text messages from him telling me everything he's doing or thinking or having for breakfast; then a whole year could go by without a word.

The last time I talked to him, he was going to make a new record. He didn't mention that the whole thing was going to be done in a matter of months, or that he was going to give it away for FREE. Well, free if you're content to own it digitally; I guess you still have to pay if you're one of those physical media people who have to have an actual product in your hands to truly relate to your music. Personally, I think digital downloading is one of the best inventions in recent years. I was so sick of all those CDs and records piling up in my room and happy to see them turned into little squiggles of code on my computer and iPod.

Anyway, I checked out Tim's new album, A Poet's Life, which is now available to listen to (you'll be able to download it in a couple more days) at the Rancid Myspace page, and it's really good. That's especially high praise coming from me, considering that the album is very ska-ish and I've never been an especially big ska fan (crossover ska-punk stuff like Operation Ivy and Rancid is another story). Actually, that's not necessarily true; I loved the Specials, and thought I'm not as familiar with it as I ought to be, I was fond of the 60s bluebeat stuff that was so popular in Notting Hill when I first arrived there long ago.

Tim's stuff has more of that old school sound than anything I've heard in years, and is almost the complete opposite of the slicked-up 90s commercial ska that put so many people, including yours truly, off the genre. It's catchy, it's danceable, it's... well, let's just say I like it a lot, and I think there's a better than average chance you will too.

President Peanut's Selective Amnesia

In the further adventures of Mr. Pot and Mr. Kettle, we find former President Jimmy Carter denouncing George W. Bush as "the worst in history." Bush-bashing being the proverbial fish-in-a-barrel sport du jour, it's understandable that the old peanut farmer would get in on the act. But while the Guardian hangs on Carter's every word - as it's prone to do with anything or anyone who could potentially embarrass the USA - both Carter and his fans seem to have overlooked the fact that until W came along, he himself was a prime candidate for Worst President. Maybe not worst ever, but definitely in contention with Warren G. Harding for worst of the 20th century.

Full disclosure: I voted for Carter in 1976, but in 1980 I abstained, being of the opinion that as bad as Reagan might be (bear in mind that this was when I was still an extreme leftist), he couldn't do any worse than Carter had. Much of the country appeared to feel similarly, because Carter was turned out of office in a landslide after only one term. Why? Well, you could tender any number of explanations, including a dismal economy, stagflation, international humiliation in the form of the Iran hostage crisis, and a great "national malaise" (as described by Carter himself, right around the time he made himself infamous for trying to fight off the "killer rabbit" with a canoe paddle. Regardless of which reason(s) you choose, it's safe to say that none of them involved people being satisfied with the job he was doing as President.

It's true that Carter has distinguished himself considerably more since leaving office than during his holding of it: his efforts on behalf of Habitat for Humanity and as a diplomatic intermediary come to mind. And no one has ever suggested Jimmy Carter was an unintelligent or unsophisticated man, which makes it all the more curious that he'd say something like this:
We [the USA] now have endorsed the concept of pre-emptive war where we go to war with another nation militarily, even though our own security is not directly threatened, if we want to change the regime there or if we fear that some time in the future our security might be endangered.
Um, this man used to be President and yet can say something so blithely ignorant of American history? Has no one bothered to inform him of the Mexican-American War, the Spanish-American War, the Vietnam War, innumerable military expeditions into Central America and the Caribbean, the Philippines uprising, and, arguably, the Korean War and the War of 1812? Say what you will about Bush's incompetence and foolhardiness in prosecuting the Iraq War, you can hardly argue that he's set some kind of precedent when it comes to interfering in other countries' affairs.

Ultimately, this could devolve into a catfight between two failed Presidents over which of the two was the bigger failure, but I suspect Carter's not viewing it that way. I suspect, rather, that he sees this as a golden opportunity to rehabilitate his own deeply sullied place in history by piling abuse on someone else who just might be worse. Understandable, of course, but not especially statesmanlike or, for that matter, Christian of him. And based on Carter's track record in office, his little hissyfit may ultimately backfire on him by reminding the American people of just why they got rid of him in the first place.

20 May 2007

$4 A Gallon? Still Too Cheap!

If this article in the Chronicle is to be believed - always a stretch where the Chronicle is concerned - people are still buying gas-guzzling SUVs despite the price of gas reaching levels never before seen in this country.

To hear Americans bellyaching, you'd never imagine that apart from the Middle East, the good old USA still has some of the cheapest energy prices in the developed world, though from the way Americans squander fuel of all sorts, it should be pretty obvious. I'm constantly seeing people sitting in their SUVs with the engine idling for an hour or more while they sit there doing God knows what, and giant big rigs and buses, which probably gobble up a gallon every minute or two, are even worse offenders. The streets of New York are lined with shops and restaurants with their windows and doors flung wide open to the world while they run the heating or the air conditioning full blast. My neighborhood is served round the clock by two subway lines and three or four bus lines, yet there are still so many people who can't imagine going anywhere without driving that the streets are perpetually clogged with cars, parked, looking for parking, and, one suspects, committed to driving aimlessly around ad infinitum for reasons long since forgotten if they were ever known in the first place.

I don't want to get up on a high horse about it, and I know people love their cars and the freedom (or illusion thereof) they confer, but all of the above seems to provide clear evidence that the price of gas and fuel in general is still far too cheap. Humans are rational beings (more or less), and they don't waste hard-earned money that they can't afford (again more or less). If energy costs were allowed to rise to true market levels (e.g., without hidden subsidies like the hundreds of billions in "defense" dollars spent to prop up the oil companies' predations around the globe), yes, people who've become dependent on the private automobile would endure considerable hardship. But it wouldn't take long for an irresistible demand for more rational transportation planning to coalesce.

Alternatively, we could go on the way we are, with energy prices rising slowly but inexorably, gradually squeezing the wealth from the transit-poor suburbs and creating a class divide in which those rich or lucky enough to live in transit-rich areas like New York have an enormous advantage over those who have no choice but to continue driving. More crucially, sooner or later - and probably sooner - war or natural disaster or economic dislocation will create another energy shock like that of the 1970s and the fallout will prove disastrous for those with no alternatives to the car.

So if you just paid $50 or more to fill your gas tank and are feeling in the mood to strangle me for saying you'd be better off paying $100 for the same privilege, believe me, I understand your sentiments. But trust me, in the long run, you'd be better off. We'd all be.

A Damp And Chilly Night On The Town

Once again summer has gone away, replaced by a nagging rain and London/San Francisco-type temperatures, but rather than huddling in my apartment trying to keep warm by using the oven as a sort of fireplace, I was propelled out into the night in search of fellowship and culture.

Met up with friends in Chelsea in the early evening and as always happens when I visit that neighborhood, found myself marveling at how I once intended or at least hoped to live there. About six years ago, I was seriously considering leasing a studio apartment in the Chelsea Hotel for a year, which I figured would be sufficient time to create an unspecified work of art or literature that would be successful enough to justify the exorbitant amount of money I'd have blown on rent.

Never mind pointing out that even in 2001 my clichéd fantasy was already a decade or two out of date; I've since managed to figure that out on my own and frequently use it as evidence in the arguments with myself that flare up whenever I come up with another crackpot scheme to transform my life, which averages out to several times a day. At any rate, Chelsea the district as well as Chelsea the hotel have long since been beyond my means, unless of course I manage to produce that still unspecified yet highly profitable work of art.

But I had little time to linger in Chelsea's genteel precincts, as I was due in Brooklyn for a launch party at one of the city's best-loved comics shops, Rocketship. The book in question was Stuck In the Middle: 17 Comics From An Unpleasant Age, featuring work by among others, Ariel Schrag (who also edited it) and my fabulous Eisner-nominated niece, Gabrielle Bell.

Gabrielle's contribution was especially meaningful for me above and beyond the usual reasons of her being a brilliant artist and storyteller (okay, and being related to me), because it hearkened back to her childhood on Spy Rock/Iron Peak, where of course I also lived for many years. It was such a unique and bizarre environment that I've long suspected words or pictures alone could never adequately capture its essence, but by combining the two, Gabrielle brought memories - and not particularly pretty ones, either - to life with a vividness that had me shivering and breaking out in goose bumps while trying to maintain the appearance of being just another guy reading the book in the midst of the party because he was too cheap to buy it.

I stuck around longer than I'd planned because Ariel, Lauren Weinstein, and Gabrielle's really cool and funny friend Karen whose last name I can't remember did a slide show reading, i.e., selections from the comic were projected on the wall and they did the voices. It was top-notch entertainment, and I ended up staying until it was over, even though it meant being an hour late for my next stop. Oh, also ran into my old friend Josh Neuman of Heeb magazine, who said he'd been "dragged" there by his comics editor, but in the end seemed impressed by the work on show and quite happy to have been so shanghaied.

Then came a quick dash back to the city, where a whole slew of bands including the Steinways and For Science were holding forth in the Lit Lounge basement. It's a bit of dive, I guess, but by East Village standards, it's actually almost classy. The show was a sloppy, good-natured affair (translation: almost everybody was drunk) where the camaraderie overshadowed the music. Which was fine by me, the only annoying part being the way the club blasted recorded music in between the bands at a volume even higher than the bands themselves. P Smith, JoeIII and I were huddled in a corner having a semi-profound conversation, nearly oblivious to the band playing some 30 feet away, but the minute the band stopped, the canned music emanating from the speaker above our heads made further discussion impossible.

Sartorial highlight: big Chris Grivet, striding off stage after his set with the Steinways, his sleeves rolled up to make his t-shirt look like a muscle shirt, comes face to face with our little crowd, whereupon JoeIII, whose own musculature could be charitably described as sparse if not downright slight, rolled up his own sleeves to create an instant caricature. Suddenly, perhaps in a gesture of Jersey solidarity, P Smith had done the same, and while P possesses a more or less normal physique, the spectacle of this normally reserved gentleman (Clark Kent would look like a raving loony alongside the ever-demure Mr. Smith) voluntarily displaying that much usually unseen flesh was the stuff of which comedy gold is made. That was all it took to get the more amply proportioned Chadd Derkins into the act, and not content to simply stand there Costanza-like while all around him cracked up, he slithered and writhed into what ubiquitous photog Bob "Rusty" James later dubbed a "homoerotic batdance."

Rusty never stopped snapping the entire time, and no doubt photo sequences will be dogging the internet by now. I, feeling no desire to show off my upper arms (ironically, since I'm one of the few in the crowd who's been known to wear genuine "muscle" shirts), cowered behind someone so I wouldn't end up in any of the pictures, and I may have been successful. At least none have turned up yet. I haven't been feeling so photogenic lately, which is why, for all of you who persist in asking, there's no photo of me here or on my Myspace (which I never update and which contains no information, so don't bother looking).

The night ended, as it generally does when I remain in Manhattan past midnight, in an unseemly scrum of drunks, hustlers and hipsters on the Union Square L train platform, waiting to be ferried back to Brooklyn on the criminally inadequate and dangerously overcrowded late night service. You think the L train gets bad at commute hours? At least during the day there's a train every few minutes, so if one is too crowded, you can wait for the next one without making yourself too late. After midnight you're lucky if it comes every 20 minutes, while the crowds waiting to ride it are every bit as dense (sometimes in both senses of the word) as they are at normal rush hours. Whoever decides how often trains need to run on the L line obviously doesn't get out much at night.

Never mind, though; by holding my breath I was able to slither into a corner of the last car and by continuing to hold it, able to survive the journey home, a journey made considerably longer by people trying to cram themselves into uncrammable places at the next couple stops. A couple blocks walk in the ever-so-slight drizzle, and I was safely home, curled up in front of the warmth of my oven, and thence to bed. All in all, not too shabby a night's outgoings.

19 May 2007

Encroaching Senility, Or An Insight Into How The Brain Works?

Every night when it's time to shut down the computer and go to bed, part of my routine is to move my glasses and my phone from my desk over to my bedside stand. I've been doing this for a long time now, years, I guess, so I don't think too much about it, it just kind of happens almost automatically.

So imagine my surprise the other night when I reached the bedside stand and found myself trying to set down a drinking glass where my reading glasses usually go. I might not even have noticed except that while there's just enough room for a pair of glasses to rest in between the radio and my notebook, there isn't enough for a drinking glass. There I stood, temporarily befuddled, simultaneously questioning whether I was having a senior moment and wondering what had become of my glasses.

The glasses, as you might expect, turned out to be on my face, but that still didn't explain how the drinking glass had got into my hand. Apparently my brain, working on autopilot, had said, "Pick up the glasses and move them to the night stand," and my body had moved to comply. Not finding a pair of glasses, it had picked up the closest approximation thereof, but that's where the mystery comes in.

A pair of glasses and a drinking glass have little similarity in terms of size, shape, weight or appearance. Well, at least the style of glasses I wear doesn't; I can't speak about your fashion choices. You could say they both contain glass, but that's a pretty nebulous connection, as you will know if you've ever tried to read through a drinking glass.

So the main factor tying the two together is linguistic, i.e., the word "glass." Is the brain that easily fooled or distracted? Does a restaurant employee, told to bus some tables, go outside and get on a city bus? Will I find myself ordering a sandwich in Subway one of these days when I'd intended to take the subway to Manhattan?

Maybe I'm just humoring myself, or am in denial, but I actually don't think I'm going senile just yet. For just an instant, though, I felt I was able to understand a little more clearly how the brain works. Or, as in this case, doesn't.

16 May 2007

Giving Directions To Hipsters

Counting last summer and the (not quite) two months since I returned in March, I've spent less than five months in Williamsburg. And to be fair, the Williamsburg where I live is not the first place many people think of when they hear the name, that distinction being reserved for the Hipster Strip and its immediate surrounds along Bedford Avenue. But apparently I already have the look of an old-timer, because the newly arrived seem to make a beeline for me to ask for directions.

And there are a lot of new arrivals these days, about three quarters of them appearing to have graduated college in the past couple weeks. Sporting nascent beards (you can tell because they haven't had a chance to get grubby from the city air) and ironic hats, they wander through the convoluted streets trying desperately not to let on that they have no idea where they're going or what they expect to find when they get there.

It's taken me a while to get used to the street plan, which was apparently laid out before rulers or t-squares were invented, or else by someone who was drunk, but after semi-mastering the tangled mass of spaghetti that passes for the map of London, Brooklyn was never going to be too much of a challenge. Still, when an earnest young man with a burgeoning but very clean red beard interrupted my reverie to ask directions to Lorimer and Norman, I had to look up at the overhead street sign to verify that we were indeed standing on Lorimer Street.

Lorimer runs near my house as well, but it's a very different Lorimer from the one that skirts the northeast edge of McCarren Park, and anyway, all the streets go rather askew at the point where Williamsburg meets Greenpoint. It's as if the two communities designed themselves to produce maximum confusion and difficulty for anyone straying across the admittedly nebulous border, calling to mind the way that early railroad lines used different gauges of track to make it difficult for the competition to encroach on their territory.

Actually, I wasn't in a reverie as much as I was pondering the conversation I'd just had with a guy who, unlike most of those around me, had lived his entire life in the neighborhood. I'd been wondering what the locals thought of the influx of middle and upper middle class young people that has so radically transformed this area in the past decade or two, and he'd been happy to share his views on the subject.

"These new people," he'd sputtered, "Hey, I got nothing against them, and they done some good stuff for the neighborhood. I go out of my way to be polite to them, but man, they got some attitudes. Like, I'm holding the door open, you know, just to be a nice guy, and they just go walking through, no thanks, nothing, not even noticing me, like I'm the fucking doorman or something. So I decided, fuck 'em, I'm not going to let myself get all burned up about it, I'm just going to let the door slam in their faces and let them deal with it."

I also learned, by his correcting me several times, that he resolutely refused to refer to the area bordering the Hipster Strip as Williamsburg, that to him it always had been and always would be known as "the North Side." Trying to soften his mood about the newcomers (myself included), I said, "Hey, they may have no manners, but at least they're driving up your property values. At the rate things are going, you'll be able to retire a rich man."

"Yeah, you got a point there," he said, "if I owned my house, that is. I rent." Oops. "Hey, it's all right," he assured me, "I'm making plenty of money off the new folks. I'm an exterminator, see, and these people see so much as a cockroach, let alone a rat, and they're screaming for me." To illustrate his point, he showed me a picture of a bedbug that he keeps stored on his cell phone. "This little guy here is gonna put my kids through college."

15 May 2007

A New York State Of Mind

I was standing in what was beginning to look like an interminable line at Duane Reade near Times Square. For you out-of-towners, Duane Reade is a chain that has pretty much cornered the drugstore market in New York City (and possibly beyond, but I can't speak to that as I still haven't left the five boroughs since arriving here). Duane Reade stores vary in size and layout, but they're pretty uniformly depressing, with their sole redeeming feature being that many of them keep late hours and a fair few are open 24-7.

So if you're out and about at some ungodly hour and feel the need for, say, ball point pens and some toothpicks (don't ask), you too may find yourself in a situation like mine: wishing you'd never come in there, tired, annoyed and frustrated from traipsing through the labyrinthine aisles in search of whatever it was you thought you needed, standing in an impatient queue of similarly despairing folks thinking, "Do I really want this?" and seriously considering putting your stuff back on the shelf and walking out.

But having already invested so much time and effort, I wasn't about to give up, even if I was in by far the slowest line, a line made much, much slower by the antics of a woman and the three tween-aged girls accompanying her. The woman was paying for a small mountain of hair care products, enough to fill two bags, but as if that wasn't enough, the three girls fanned out through the store and one at a time came dashing back to the counter with a few more items, again all hair-related. The cashier filled up a third bag, and still the little girls kept arriving with more junk, and when I say "junk," I do not use the term loosely. Nearly all of it was the nonsensical kind of rubbish that only a vast, overweening system of capitalism run amok could produce, and don't get me started on what kind of system must have produced the people who voluntarily consume it. I was almost getting nostalgic for the command economy of the old Soviet Union.

Finally the girls ran out of hunter-gatherer steam, allowing the cashier to ring up the grand total, something like $158.14 (it could have been $1,058.14; my eyes were glazing over by this point). Fine, I thought, the line is finally going to start moving, and with only three or four more people ahead of me, I should be out of this hellhole in half an hour, tops.

But nooooo. First the lady pulls out a wad of cash, and I even thought pleasant thoughts about her: bless you, my dear, for not using a credit card that will inevitably have some kind of glitch that necessitates calling the store manager to sort out. And indeed, the cashier quickly made change and handed it to her along with her four or five bags, which she in turn passed to the little girls. Then, with everyone in the line behind her silently willing her to move on so the next customer could be served, she just stood there. And stood there. And STOOD THERE.

First she carefully counted her change. Then she counted it again. Then she arranged all the bills so they were facing the same way, then rearranged them to face the other way. Then she scooped up her coins and dropped them, one by one, into one of the pockets of her purse. Next she opened another purse pocket and considered putting her bills into it. Reconsidered, opened another pocket, and studied both of them, apparently weighing the question of which would be the more suitable home for her newly obtained currency. Finally, reaching a decision, she deposited the bills, again ONE by ONE, and carefully snapped the pocket shut, then the other pocket, and finally the purse itself.

An audible sigh went up from all of us. At last she was going to move. Or was she? What was she doing now? She was opening her purse again. Checking, apparently, to see if the money she'd put in was still there, or perhaps inquiring whether it was comfortable. What's this? Oh, she's having a look at her mirror, checking out her hair, perhaps wondering if she should pull out one of the myriad hair care products she'd just purchased and give them a tryout.

I'd had it. I was within seconds of saying, "Yo, lady, could you move off to the side and do that, we got people waiting here!" I didn't, though it took some resisting, and the only thing that stopped me in the end was the thought that she might be a foreign tourist or a visitor from some place like California where everything moves at a slower pace, and that it might be very unpleasant and embarrassing for her to be shouted at like that.

It startled me, though, that I came even that close to acting like a stereotypically obnoxious New Yorker. Especially since most New Yorkers don't act that way anymore, haven't for quite a few years. Well, at least not in Manhattan; the practice of being loud and outspoken does still persist in some of the outer boroughs. But for the most part, New York these days is polite, possibly the politest big city in the world, or at least the parts of it that I've seen.

But New York or no New York, I'm not like that. Yeah, I may think all sorts of horrible things when people don't move on or off the subway with suitable alacrity, may seethe with a burning inner rage when they don't stand to the right on the escalator, but I don't speak up. It's not my personality anyway, and years of living in England ensured that my indignation seldom extended beyond muffled tutting and harrumphing (that man wasn't exaggerating when he sang that hanging on in quiet desperation was the English way).

Or maybe I am like that, and my inner id, chomping at the bit all these years to get out and snarl at people in the streets, suddenly feels liberated by an outdated image of what it means to be a New Yorker (think Robert DeNiro in Taxi Driver, and come to think of it, that was set near Times Square, too).

Yeah, that must have been it: a lethal confluence of Eighth Avenue, 42nd Street and Duane Reade. As soon as I traveled downtown, I was restored to my usual serene self, and by the time I got back to Brooklyn, I was positively brimming over with good cheer. Not enough good cheer, it's true, to stop me thinking dark thoughts about the bozos who schedule late night L trains along the same principles as Duane Reade assigns its cashiers: i.e., frequently enough to keep people waiting in teeth-gnashing despair instead of throwing themselves into the East River and attempting to swim to Brooklyn, but only just.

And while I was mistaken to think my being ready to snap at the hapless customer in Duane Reade meant I was acquiring a New York attitude, bitching - albeit helplessly - about the subway is a far surer sign that I'm beginning to feel right at home.

13 May 2007

This Is Where Detroit Used To Be

Once they hear I grew up in Detroit, people almost always want to ask me questions, usually along the lines of, "Is it as bad as they say it is?" or "Did you see anyone get murdered?" What really fascinates them is when I describe how vast stretches of what was once the nation's fourth largest city simply disappeared, how where there were factories and shops and apartments and houses, there are now only fields punctuated by the occasional ruin.

Those who've never visited Detroit have a hard time imagining what I'm talking about; those who've been there in recent years have seen the empty spaces, but unless they're my age or older, have little idea what kind of city used to live there. I'm afraid I could never do justice to the sad tale of Detroit's decline into desperate oblivion, but I've run across someone who can: the author of Detroitblog, which combines text and pictures to create a poignant and tragic, yet also strangely touching portrait of the star-crossed city I once called home. I was especially struck by this outstanding piece of photojournalism which shows with devastating clarity what it's like when a city - and the society and social structures that go with it - collapses and begins to return to nature. It's especially fascinating for me because it portrays the neighborhood - or what used to be a neighborhood - where my mother grew up, and which I often visited as a child. I highly recommend it.

12 May 2007

So I Wasn't Just Imagining There Were More Dumbasses Around These Days

But really, it's no joking matter: the Chronicle reports that California's high school graduation rate has dropped to a ten year low, and that only two thirds of the state's students manage to muddle through the minimal requirements for a diploma. The picture looks much worse in major urban areas: in Los Angeles and Oakland not even half the students manage to graduate (41% and 46%, respectively). San Francisco surprisingly manages to beat the odds, with a 73% pass rate, and I say surprisingly because over the years I've come to expect any and all public institutions run by The City That Used To Know How to be corrupt and incompetent.

Frankly, I'm still inclined to suspect chicanery on the part of SFUSD: could it be that they're using dubious means to help students to beat the new state exit exam? Considering that the city routinely declares itself exempt from federal immigration laws and state laws barring racial quotas, it would hardly be shocking.

The usual suspects can be found proclaiming from their ivory towers in Backwards Land that the problem lies not in poor teachers, lousy administration, screwy curricula or sloppy/nonexistent discipline, but in the exit exam itself. Attorney John Affeldt, who's spent nearly a decade lobbying if favor of high school diplomas for illiterates, argues, "The state has not yet earned the right to impose this exit exam penalty on [students]."

Having to take a test to prove you've acquired the (very) basic skills conferred by a modern high school education is a "penalty?" The state has to "earn" the right to impose standards for a diploma? By that logic how has the state "earned" the right to require people to know how to drive
(well, in theory, anyway) before they're awarded a driver's license? Isn't it horribly oppressive to expect idealistic young people to jump through years of hoops and state-mandated exams before being allowed to practice as brain surgeons?

The "all must have prizes" school of educational theory maintains that students are more or less entitled to a high school diploma if they hang around long enough on the grounds that it might damage their self-esteem if they don't receive the same recognition as students who've actually done some work. Never mind that as a result a high school diploma becomes about as significant as the gold stars awarded to kindergarteners for being quiet during nap time, and that students now have to spend four more years and tens of thousands of dollars for a college degree proving essentially what a high school diploma used to, i.e., literacy and numeracy.

New York City doesn't do any better, by the way, with a graduation rate similar to that of Oakland or LA. Considering the steadily dwindling demand for unskilled labor in this country, investors looking for growth opportunities might be well advised to consider the prison sector. California, always a national trendsetter, has already announced its own $7.4 billion expansion.

11 May 2007

Anyone Buried In Grant's Tomb?

My friend Brian tried to convince me that the real answer to the old wheeze about Grant's Tomb was that no one was, that although the place had been intended as his tomb, for some reason they'd never actually been able to bury old U.S. Grant there, and thus it functioned only as a monument.

Quite a monument it is, too, comprising the sort of majestic Graeco-Roman architecture you'd expect of an empire at or headed for the peak of its glory, which certainly describes the United States of America at the close of the 19th century, when this remarkable edifice was completed.

We had business in Harlem anyway, so it seemed a good idea to check out one of those sights that few New Yorkers ever get around to seeing. Though there's not that much to see apart from the building itself and a few photos and exhibits (the setting along Riverside Drive and the Hudson is none too shabby, either), it was worth it. Seeing Brian have to admit that he was wrong about Grant's not being buried there was an added attraction. Not only the old general, but his wife as well, were laid out in two of the most imposing catafalques I've ever seen. I may not be using that word correctly, but it sounds so much grander than "coffins," which honestly doesn't do justice to the elaborate structures in which Ulysses Simpson and Julia are sleeping away the years.

That notion got me ruminating, though: if, for example, some part of the soul or spirit clings to the body after death, would that entail hanging around one's final resting place indefinitely? And if so, wouldn't "resting place" be a bit of a misnomer? Because as still and peaceful and beautiful as the surroundings were, I imagine it would drive me stark, staring bonkers to spend more than a day or two kicking back in Grant's Tomb, let alone all eternity or whatever portion thereof - probably considerable - that the tomb is likely to be standing. Having such a capacious and luxurious coffin to lounge about in seems as though it would only make matters worse.

By the time I'd finished digesting and dismissing these rather pointless thoughts, the morning's muggy grayness had given way to the warm, muggy brightness of what looked suspiciously like an early summer's day. We'd walked much of the way back downtown before I realized I'd forgotten, on the off chance that some vestigial presence lingered in the vicinity, to thank General Grant for saving the Union, and to mention that his photos made him look a lot younger than he does on the $50 bill.

10 May 2007

Hello I Must Be Going

The night Tony Blair became Prime Minister will have left a vivid impression on most people living in Britain at the time. For me, who had only recently moved to London, it was particularly exciting. During the late night election vigil you could hear successive rounds of cheers emanating from flats up and down the block in our largely Labour constituency as one after another of the hated Tories went down to defeat. The following morning dawned bright and spectacularly warm - this was before Mediterranean-style weather had become commonplace in the Southeast, and also before the global warming cloud had set out convincing us that it was a Bad Thing - so we marked it as delightful harbinger of what New Labour would do for the country.

Then we stood in the blazing sunlight for upwards of half an hour waiting for a bus that failed to materialize, and I groused that nothing seemed to have changed very much at all. Now ten years have passed, Tony Blair is about to leave and turn the country over to Gordon Brown in the short term and, if pundits are to be believed, to David Cameron's Conservatives in the long. Unsurprisingly, people - though not necessarily yours truly - are still grousing that nothing much has changed.

Perhaps there's some truth to that. Transport is still rubbish, with some marginal improvement in service canceled out by swingeing fare hikes that have made getting around London and the country at large more expensive than almost anywhere in the world. Crime, especially violent crime, is worse than ever, and what might be called the Africanization of Britain - the widespread failure of central and local government to create and maintain functional public spaces and institutions - has proceeded apace.

Yet despite those and numerous other criticisms that could be made, Britain today is a very different place than when Tony Blair took charge, and the change is not entirely for the worse. It's become by far the liveliest and most creative country in Europe, so much so that it barely feels like a part of Europe anymore; as both cause and and result, its population and culture have been transformed by massive immigration, legal and illegal. The sclerotic, shabbily genteel and declining country I first encountered in the 1970s is no more; Tony Blair's Britain has acquired a dynamism and excitement that could lead you to think it was just starting out, not steeped in a couple thousand years of history.

And although it puts me into a fairly small minority, I'll be sorry to see Tony go. He dealt more in grand gestures and symbols than in substantive action, and much of what he promised to accomplish has yet to arrive, but he was better than nearly anyone at articulating a vision, and that's perhaps the fundamental role of any leader. Even if - as most Britons did - you disagreed with him on Iraq, it's hard to argue that he didn't show conviction by going against the will of the majority for something he believed was right. Of course you could also argue that he squandered much of his political capital on what now looks to be a disastrously failed enterprise.

All in all, though, I'm glad to have been there and to have been a part of Britain for nearly all of Tony Blair's premiership, and wouldn't mind if he decided to stick around a while longer, not that his increasingly stroppy Labour colleagues would ever allow it. In fact, Tony's chances might be better if he switched to the Tories and waged a leadership battle against David Cameron. Barring that, and I think we safely can, let's just bid Tony a slightly wistful farewell and thank him for keeping things, well, at the very least, interesting.

The Blog Of Record

I see the New York Times has finally got round to covering London's free newspaper war. Faithful LarryLivermore.com readers will, of course, have had this story nearly eight months ago.